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Before Audubon, there was Catesby
Plus, leaf-raking season and the latest after the McCormick Place bird collision event.
Last week’s announcement that the Chicago Audubon Society was changing its name to Chicago Bird Alliance had me thinking about Mark Catesby, the 18th century English naturalist.
Catesby preceded Audubon by decades, and though little known was perhaps no less accomplished. He traveled to the “New World” in at least 1714 and 1722 and collected specimens primarily from the southeast of what would become the United States and the West Indies.
Paging through Catesby works at the Newberry Library, I’m struck by the contrasts with Audubon’s iconic images—and the similarities. Both “collected” specimens before drawing them. Both called species by names that seem quaint today, like the above Small Bittern and the below Little Owl. Catesby and his illustrators (Catesby outsourced some of the painting) have quite a different style than Audubon, arguably more naturalistic and less of a romanticization.
In a parallel universe, Catesby would be as well-known as Audubon and we would be debating the merits of keeping his name attached to one of our most prominent conservation organizations. We would have a National Catesby Society with chapters all over the world. It underscores the perils of naming a movement after a person, despite confusing protestations that the Audubon Society transcends any one person’s name. It also serves as a reminder that the modern, Western perspective on birds isn’t the only one—after all, Indigenous people would have an entirely separate nomenclature and set of cultural associations. And likely less focused on “collection” let alone our unique birding obsession with listing.
Birds don’t “belong” to any one group or individual. More than anything, the existence of a Catesby as a more obscure counterpoint and antecedent to Audubon would seem to be evidence of that.
All the leaves are falling…
Keen-eyed TWiB readers will recall past autumnal posts about leaving leaves in place during fall rather than raking them, or worse, using a leaf blower. The New York Times has refreshed this point for this season of senescence.
“When we are overly zealous about getting rid of every single leaf in our neighborhoods, we literally wipe out entire populations of these pollinators,” Mr. Mizejewski said. “These are species that can live right alongside us if we just give them some habitat.”
It’s a fool’s errand to rake up all the leaves, put them in a bag, and have it hauled off to a landfill. It’s also a bad idea to blow leaves out from under every shrub and tree in garden beds. In fact, the opposite is better: rake leaves into the garden beds, to form a leaf mat and a layer of organic matter to improve soil health.
The American desire to have acres upon acres of bright green turf grass, with nary a leaf in sight, is a folly on a number of levels, from the gas used for mowers to the fertilizers and pesticides. Leaf-raking is an area where even modest changes of behavior can have benefits for the planet.
Curtain call for McCormick Place
The simple action of drawing the drapes at night could save thousands of birds. After a deadly evening of fall migration earlier this month, McCormick Place has agreed to shut its drapes in an effort to prevent future bird collisions. The fact is, collision prevention doesn’t take much. The mega-burst of migration during the early morning hours of October 5 sent hundreds of birds in the direction of McCormick Place’s Lakeside Center, which juts into a major migratory pathway. The grim event and graphic images that followed may have been just the jolt needed to lead to some action—the Mayor, a congressman, and an alderman issued statements afterward. Indeed, Representative Mike Quigley has introduced a bipartisan safe buildings act in Congress.
A call for Encouragers
Mark Catesby relied on the support of subscribers, or Encouragers, to pay for his work. Rather than waiting to complete an entire volume, he would regularly send illustrations to Encouragers for years and years. This way he could afford to continue his passion for depicting the birds of the Americas. With This Week in Birding on the cusp of its third anniversary, you can become an Encourager, too—of this newsletter. Just click the button below to begin the process of becoming a Paid Subscriber. Subscriptions start at $50 per year, or $5 per month.
November 4 - THE WORLD OF MONTY AND ROSE, Conserve Sauk Film Festival, UW Platteville-Sauk County, Baraboo, Wis., 1:30 p.m.
November 5 - THE WORLD OF MONTY AND ROSE, Sagawau Environmental Learning Center, 12545 111th Street, Lemont, Ill., 1 p.m. (please call (630) 257-2045 to RSVP).
November 8 - FLUDDLES, Illinois Central College, 127F Lecture Recital Hall, East Peoria, Ill., 7 p.m. (premiere screening)
November 15 - THE WORLD OF MONTY AND ROSE, Thatcher Pavilion, 8030 Chicago Avenue, River Forest, Ill., 6 p.m.
November 28 - FLUDDLES, McHenry County College, Luecht Auditorium, McHenry, Ill., 6:30 p.m.
December 6 - THE MAGIC STUMP, Thatcher Pavilion, 8030 Chicago Avenue, River Forest, Ill., 6 p.m.
December 9 - FLUDDLES, Rock Springs Nature Center, 3939 Nearing Lane, Decatur, Ill., 2 p.m.